United States to boost air power to counter China

Washington’s plan would enhance the US-Japan alliance and bolster deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region

Analysts see Washington’s plan to boost its Pacific air power as a move to reinforce deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and counterbalance Beijing’s attempt to gain dominance in the region.

The United States Air Force aims to upgrade more than 80 fighter jets stationed at Japanese bases over the next several years.

It is part of a US$10 billion program to modernize US forces there. The Defense Department announced the plan last week, saying it would enhance the Washington-Tokyo alliance and bolster deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region.

James Schoff, a senior director of the US-Japan NEXT Alliance Initiative at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, pointed out:

This is a necessary upgrade that has been planned for some time. And combined with Japan’s own investments, it will help maintain some degree of air power balance between the allies and China’s progress in air force modernization.

Chinese aircraft

“Without it, the credibility of US deterrent capacity would be much weaker, which could cause Beijing to doubt [Washington’s] seriousness about protecting the status quo across the Taiwan Strait and prompt more aggressive Chinese behavior,” Schoff said.

The Taiwanese Defense Ministry reported that it spotted 37 Chinese aircraft near Taiwan earlier this week as they headed to the Western Pacific for drills with the Shandong aircraft carrier.

Chinese jets and warships have frequently made dangerous maneuvers around the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as a part of its territory.

In March, former US Indo-Pacific Commander John Aquilino told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that China could soon have the world’s largest air force.

It is currently the third-largest air power in the world, behind the United States and Russia.

Chinese fighter jets during the PLA Navy drills encircling Taiwan. Photo: Xinhua

Yet its rapid military modernization efforts mean it now possesses more than 3,150 aircraft. About 2,400 include fighters, as well as strategic and tactical bombers, according to the Pentagon’s 2023 report on China’s military power.

Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, told Voice of America:

US-Japan relations should not target or harm other countries’ interests and should not undermine regional peace and stability.

In addition to protecting Taiwan, the upgrade will also include advanced F-35 jets that will help United States Forces Japan or USFJ deter North Korea and defend the Southwest Islands, according to James Przystup, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Tokyo has a territorial dispute with Beijing over what it calls the Senkaku Islands and what China calls the Diaoyu Islands.

Amphibious operations

Tokyo and Moscow also have a dispute over islands off Hokkaido, which Japan calls the Northern Territories and Russia calls the Kuril Islands.

Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, a professor at the University of Tokyo and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Indo-Pacific Security Initiative, said:

The upgrades will provide qualitative and quantitative boosts to the USFJ inventory, which will also enhance the US-Japan alliance’s readiness against China, North Korea, and Russia. Benefits will be seen not only in aerial operations but also [in] guarding US and Japanese capabilities for naval and amphibious operations. 

“The platforms are not simply about technological superiority for combat, but also more advanced electronic warfare capabilities to penetrate weaknesses of China, North Korea, and Russia,” he said.

China often conducts joint air drills with Russia near South Korea and Japan. In December, their jets entered South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone, prompting Seoul to scramble its fighters. 

China’s J-16 fighter was part of a military operation near Taiwan. Photo: PLA

David Maxwell, the vice-president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy, said:

Russia has been conducting some combined operations with China on a limited basis recently, so if Russia operates in the Indo-Pacific, it will certainly indicate these systems will contribute to the defense of US-allies’ interests.

Maxwell added that the American bases in Japan give the US “a lot of flexibility to be able to deal with multiple contingencies, either on the Korean Peninsula or in the South China Sea, or anywhere in Asia.”

Okinawa is about 740 kilometers, or 459.8 miles, from Taiwan and 990 kilometers, or 615.1 miles, from South Korea’s southern port city of Busan. 

The Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, which the US calls “the keystone of the Pacific,” is the largest American installation in the Indo-Pacific.

Under threat

Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said rotating aircraft at Kadena during the upgrade transition will help the US disperse them in case of an attack.

Kadena Air Base is under greater threat than it’s been in decades [from a range of Chinese capabilities, both ballistic and cruise missiles]. There are a couple of options for how to deal with that. 

“One is for the US to disperse its forces more so if there was an attack, there would be less concentration of US forces,” Cooper, who served as special assistant to the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy during the George W. Bush administration, added.

Christy Lee is a producer with Voice of America.

This article is republished courtesy of Voice of America. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.